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Boston mayor’s early lessons

What Walsh can learn from the Olympics bid, the school superintendent search, and all that snow

globe staff/istockphoto; globe staff illustration

The question for Mayor Marty Walsh has always been this: Could he make the transition from legislator, a job with a languid pace and little individual responsibility, to being an executive able to lead Boston in a confidence-inspiring fashion?

This is a good juncture for an evolutionary assessment. Weather-wise, 2015 has been the winter of our discontent, with Boston smothered in a succession of snowstorms. Meanwhile, debate about whether the Hub should host the 2024 summer Olympics has heated up, and the selection of a new Boston school superintendent will conclude tonight.

So how is the mayor doing as we move into the second year of his first term?

First, the good news. Walsh’s innate likability has served him well. He comes off as a big-hearted guy who cares about people. He’s generous with credit and, civic actors say, much easier to approach on issues of concern than his predecessor. That makes for a better, more open civic conversation, a change that shouldn’t be minimized.


But if he doesn’t suffer from micron-thin skin, Walsh does have something of a tin ear. For instance, he downplayed the opposition to holding a parade for the Patriots while the city was still snow-clogged, claiming the only real criticism came from the press and out-of-towners. That was both defensive and dismissive — and has given parking-space savers an added rhetorical shovel to dig in against City Hall’s efforts to return claimed spaces to the public domain.

Lesson: When you do something that’s controversial, acknowledge the disagreement, don’t dismiss or diminish it.

Similarly, when the Globe’s Andrew Ryan broke the news that the city had closed some 9,000 (!) snow-removal requests or complaints without necessarily having done anything about them, Walsh apologized, but then added comments that seemed cavalier about Boston residents’ criticism of City Hall’s storm-cleanup efforts: “Sometimes, they need a place to be frustrated with, and the city is a good target.”

Lesson: When your team messes up, take responsibility, fully and openly. No exculpatory clauses or weasel words.

When it comes to the Olympics effort, Walsh clearly got too close too quickly, with too little homework, to construction magnate John Fish’s vanity project. One blunder came in signing a document stipulating that city employees couldn’t criticize Boston’s Olympics bid, the International Olympic Committee, the US Olympic Committee, or the Games themselves. A second misstep came when Walsh declared that there shouldn’t be a public vote on whether to pursue such a bid.


Having now renegotiated the IOC agreement to strike the no-free-speech-for-city-employees clause and allow for the possibility of a referendum, the mayor has executed a partial course correction. Nevertheless, the Olympics effort remains a loose cannon — one that has already twice rolled over unwary mayoral toes. And still unanswered is how Walsh or Boston 2024 can guarantee that Boston taxpayers won’t have some financial exposure.

Meanwhile, the mayor continues to temporize on whether he’ll support or oppose City Councilor Josh Zakim’s attempt to hold an advisory vote on the matter in the fall.

Lesson: Keep Boston 2024 at arm’s length. A mayor’s primary focus must be protecting the average citizens of his city, not on promoting the grand plans of its movers and shakers.

Next up, the strange stutter-step pace of mayoral appointments. It took Walsh almost a year to select a Boston Redevelopment Authority director, and then he contented himself with elevating interim director Brian Golden.

The search for a new school superintendent, meanwhile, has seemed unbalanced in both phases.

It took forever and a day for that search to result in four less-than-breathtaking finalists. Then, once those finalists were revealed, the many stakeholders in Boston education had a scant two weeks to learn about them before tonight’s vote.


Lesson: When it comes to the final stage in a selection process like this one, include enough time for public opinion and participation to be meaningful. Otherwise, a mayor seems unconcerned with citizen sentiment.

Early in his second year, Walsh’s polling remains strong. His personal qualities have stood him in good stead despite an uneven performance. Still, a smart politician doesn’t make the same mistake, or the same kind of mistake, twice. He seeks out candid critiques, considers them thoughtfully, and then makes improvements where needed, whether in his administration or his personal approach.

Lesson: Don’t waste your mistakes. Learn from them.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.


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